01 May 2021

Finding a Benedictine
icon of the ‘True Vine’

A Benedictine icon of the True Vine by Sister Marie-Paul OSB

Patrick Comerford

The Gospel reading tomorrow (2 May 2021) is the ‘True Vine’ passage in Saint John’s Gospel (John 15: 1-8). As I was searching for illustrations on this reading for liturgical resources for Sunday on another forum earlier this week, I came across a card with this icon of the ‘True Vine’.

Needless to say, I cannot remember where the card came from, or where I might have bought it – perhaps it was in Glenstal Abbey, but perhaps it was in Lichfield Cathedral.

The original icon is from the French-speaking Benedictine Monastery of the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, but the card was published by the Printery House at the Conception Abbey in Conception, Missouri.

The icon is by Sister Marie-Paul Farran, who uses the motif of the vine and the branches to bring together many of the Gospel themes and scenes in which Christ calls people to be his followers: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ (John 15: 5).

Christ is the focal point of the icon, with his hands outstretched in welcome, robed in the blood-red of his humanity and the mysterious blue of his divinity. Surrounding him are six images from the Gospels. Beginning in the upper right corner, and moving clockwise, we find:

1, ‘I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness’ (John 12: 46). The scene in the corner recalls the words of Isaiah: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9: 2).

2, The next scene is of the Crucifixion, and a reminder of the admonition found in all three synoptic Gospels: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (see Matthew 16: 24).

3, The sheaf of wheat in the lower right corner recalls the words, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few’ (Matthew 9: 37; Luke 10: 2).

4, The water scene in the lower left shows James and John leaving their father Zebedee: ‘Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him’ (Matthew 4: 22).

5, In the left centre, Andrew introduces his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, who says, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter) (John 1: 40-42).

6, Finally, in the scene in the top left, we see the disciples struggling to comprehend Christ’s teachings about Bread from Heaven that have caused many of his followers to turn away. ‘So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life’.’ (John 6: 67-68).

The late Sister Marie-Paul (Marie-Thérèse) Farran, OSB (1930-2019) was a master iconographer for many years at the Monastery of the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. She worked in the Byzantine style, following faithfully the ancient patterns and colours. The other nuns in her community helped with the less exacting parts of the work, preparing wood panels and applying gold leaf.

Sister Marie-Paul died in 2019. Abbot Primate Gregory Polan of Conception Abbey first came to know her when he was a seminarian studying in Israel in 1976, and so began a life-long friendship. She wrote the icons of Saint Joseph and Saint Benedict that grace the abbey basilica, as well as an icon of the Paschal Mystery that hangs in the monastery. She was a truly holy woman, someone whose writing of icons formed her life and her spirit.

She was born in Cairo in Egypt on 10 November 1930 of Palestinian and Italian descent. She deeply felt the tensions between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land, praying and offering her life and presence for peace in the land of Christ’s birth. The beauty of her icons matched the beauty of her heart. She died on 8 May 2019.

Sister Marie-Paul’s icons are found in churches and individual collections around the world. The Printery House sells many of her icons and is the exclusive printer and distributor for reproductions in the US.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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